Sebastian Unger, the well-known author of War and The Perfect Storm, has posed a different kind of premise for us to consider. At a time when we are relentlessly urged to become a more pluralistic, tolerant and expansive society, Unger thinks it's perhaps time we became more tribal.
He recently completed a new book, titled Tribe. Unger is a former war journalist and now a contributing editor to Vanity Fair magazine. He's been around the world in lots of places and now he has a story to tell -- a compelling one. While our world grows ever more complex and demanding, Unger wonders if we aren't, at the same time, feeling the urges of the millennia-old tug for a sense of group belonging and meaning.
He bemoans the reality that with everything being handled for us in the affluent West, we have forgotten the simple meaning of collective purpose we are capable of, but which we are never challenged to display. He points to natural calamities that challenged communities in the developed world and how they came together without being commanded to.
One thinks of the devastation following Katrina, or the costly flooding that took place in Calgary a few years ago and how citizens, given the chance, performed remarkable acts of service and relief without guidance. I recall Calgary's mayor, Naheed Nenshi, while speaking in London a couple of years ago, telling of how he gathered citizens together at McMahon Stadium during the crisis and had no idea how to instruct them. At last, he merely urged them to go and do whatever they could to rebuild again -- to love their neighbours as themselves. The city, a great model of volunteerism at any time, rose to the occasion in far greater fashion than anyone had expected.
Unger's lesson is not what citizens do in such a moment as much as what they feel. Inevitably comes the experience of togetherness, of human bonding, on such a collective scale as to make people desire such emotions on a longer-term basis once everything is completed. Unger terms it, "Something that would make us feel like a tribe."
But isn't tribalism a bad thing? At least that's what we're told on almost every level. It's a sophisticated world and we need to broaden out to become part of it, we are told. Yet the more we reach for such a life, Unger argues, the more we long for a sense of closer community, of deeper companionship, of home. Ultimately it is about a sense of being needed, as he writes in this revealing paragraph:
"It's about why -- for many people -- war feels better than peace and hardship can turn out to be a great blessing, and disaster are sometimes remembered more fondly than weddings or tropical vacations. Humans don't mind hardship, in fact, they thrive on it; what they mind is not feeling necessary."
Unger attributes this need, or more specifically the lack of it, to a growing percentage of the mental illness and psychological challenges of our modern lives. We are being stretched so much by modern demands that we have been ignoring that need for belonging that thousands of years of evolution have built into us.
We speak much about "community" in our modern era, yet we have proved remarkably ineffective at creating it to the degree that we need and are fed by it. The larger that cities grow, the shallower the sense of belonging that we experience. The greater our numbers, the more remote we can feel.
All this represents the great challenge for politics. Its main task isn't merely to assist us in being more tolerant, affluent or progressive; it must also succeed in making us more at home -- a place safe from the relentless attacks of social media, of work-related meaninglessness and of the growing sense of distance we feel from even from ourselves.
Successive politics straddles both worlds and harmonizes them in the process. Should it not, we are left with similar feelings to Vincent van Gogh's: "A great fire burns within me, but no one stops to warm themselves at it, and passers-by only see a wisp of smoke." In such circumstances, only a sense of tribe brings meaning and inevitably we search for home.
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